Bad to the Bone

                                                                         by Logan Hill

Kobe Bryant cheated on his wife, Vanessa
—who followed her more civilized impulses
and publicly forgave him.

January 11th, 2004 — Britney’s quickie Vegas marriage was all anybody was talking about last week. People just couldn’t help themselves. As it turns out, that excuse may be exactly right.

In his new book, The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share and Follow the Golden Rule (Times Books, $26), Scientific American columnist and Skeptic magazine editor Michael Shermer argues that our moral impulses are more a matter of biological hard-wiring than conscious choice. What’s more, he says that human beings have stopped evolving morally — and our baser impulses to lie, cheat, gossip and steal are behaviors we’ll just have to learn to live with.

The author, a self-proclaimed “non-theistic agnostic,” uses everything from anthropology to neuroscience and philosophy — but emphatically not religion — to chronicle the evolution of human morality. “Our basic moral principles evolved hundreds of thousands of years ago, before religion came along and encoded them,” says Shermer. “People wonder, ‘Why should I be moral?’ ” he says. “In a sense, [they] might as well ask, ‘Why should I be in love? Or be hungry?’

“It’s just basic to human nature.” Like the desire for sex or food, “guilt and shame and pride and the sense of justice and injustice” evolved to help the human race survive. But even when we’re generous, he says, we’re really only interested in what’s in it for ourselves.

Moral acts of altruism, sympathy or cooperation have historically enabled groups — and the species itself — to prosper. “If everybody in a group did the wrong thing most of the time, these groups would not survive,” Shermer explains. “For a social primate species to survive in a fairly harsh world, there must be a level of cooperation.” But Shermer holds little hope that human beings will continue to refine their sense of right and wrong—in fact, he thinks that this is as good as society gets.

As evidence, he says that several of the same moral qualities found in early human history are still with us today—and they influence everything from how we gossip to why we go to war. So we asked Shermer to explain some specific behavior. For example: Why do we generously tip a waiter we’ll never see again?

“Fairness is a deep evolutionary feeling that evolved because it’s good for the group,” Shermer says. Shermer says we have an innate sense of what’s fair and what’s not, and cites studies done involving both primates and small children. “Young children know whether they’re getting a fair [share] or not down to the microscopic difference in the size of slices of birthday cake,” Shermer says. “They’ll shout, ‘I was cheated!’ The sense of what’s fair and what isn’t is deeply ingrained.”

If we’re so inclined to be fair, why would, say, a wealthy man like Sam Waksal break the law just to avoid losing money in the stock market? Shermer says we have an inherent ability to excuse our own immoral desires—to, perhaps, convince ourselves that we “deserve” to break the rules. “We can rationalize all kinds of selfish behaviors,” he says, even though we are programmed by culture, history and evolution to resist pursuing our own happiness at the expense of another’s.

On a grander scale, Shermer says he is not a believer in moral absolutes like good and evil; he believes anything and anyone can be explained, including a terrorist like Osama bin Laden—who Shermer maintains is not pure evil, but a man who, like the rest of us, had potential for both good and evil. The author maintains that environmental conditions informed his decision to choose to commit acts of atrocity.

People like bin Laden, says Shermer, somehow “override our evolutionary propensity toward moral behavior and the repulsion most of us would, or at least should, feel.” But such extreme acts, he says, are aberrations. Easier to explain, he says, are far more commonplace behaviors like gossip—even about people we don’t know, like Ms. Spears and her lamentable ex-husband.

We’re compelled, he says, to talk about “who’s sleeping with who, who’s a bully, who’s a cooperator, who’s not,” says Shermer. “It’s really important to gossip so you know who’s going to [take care of you],” he says. “[Nowadays] we spread a lot of information that’s not true, but originally gossip had a good, positive and useful impulse. That’s the normal human thing to do—to talk about other people.”

And when it comes to adultery, the evolutionary benefits are obvious, says Shermer. “For the male, depositing one’s genes in more places increases the probability of … genetic immortality. For the female, it’s a chance to trade up for better genes and higher social status.

Still, Shermer holds out a bit of hope that human beings could actually develop even better behavior. “Those guys made a good start of it,” he says, referring to the authors of the Bible, Koran and Talmud. “But we live in a completely different world. “It’s time,” he says, “that we came up with something better.”


© Copyright eSKEPTIC - Monday, January 12th, 2004